Isn’t it lovely when reality and the Onion melt into one? All pretense of seriousness is dropped and the true absurdity behind some of what is billed as ‘news’ lurches into the light. Well, that’s not exactly what happened this morning, but still, we couldn’t help but giggle at this headline in the New York Times: “Bush Abandons Phrase ‘Stay the Course’ on Iraq.”
As Tony Snow, keeping his straightest face, announced yesterday and newspapers dutifully repeated, the president has decided to banish the expression from his repertoire of spin on Iraq. “He stopped using it,” Snow said. “It left the wrong impression about what was going on and it allowed critics to say, ‘Well, here’s an administration that’s just embarked upon a policy and not looking at what the situation is,’ when, in fact, it is the opposite.”
Fair enough. But surely this is an indication of a change of policy. “Are there dramatic shifts in policy? The answer is no,” Snow added.
And it is true that what’s been billed the last few days as a change of direction is really not so dramatic. The generals have decided to establish a few vague deadlines for the Iraqi government with the goal of beginning to pull out troops in the next year and a half. But the objectives to be met — as the Times puts it, “cracking down on Shiite militias, persuading Sunni insurgents to lay down their arms and reaching agreement on a fair division of oil revenues” — have remained largely static for three years now. With the new deadlines not accompanied by any real repercussions for not meeting them, it’s hard to tell what is novel here.
So what are we left with, since it’s really just the language that is being altered? “Stay the course” will now be replaced by “constantly updating and changing.” Most newspaper editors neglected to acknowledge this truly Orwellian moment, simply printing the change without much commentary on how the policies behind the words will not be following suit.
The Times at least tried to offer a subtle jab by simply printing the president’s own bumbling attempts to explain what “stay the course” actually means. This from an October 11 press conference: “Stay the course means keep doing what you’re doing. My attitude is, don’t do what you’re doing if it’s not working; change. Stay the course also means don’t leave before the job is done. And that’s — we’re going to get the job done in Iraq. And it’s important that we do get the job done in Iraq.”
What a story like this one illuminates are the limitations of traditional journalism reporting and how it can often work in the favor of an administration trying to present the illusion that it is doing something it isn’t. Every paper needed to report the news of the phrase-change. The press secretary announced it after all, didn’t he? But without the latitude to expose the hollowness of the action, all the reader receives is the sense that some kind of change has taken place. When none has.
To the Washington Post’s great credit, they decided to do things a little differently, running an analysis piece on Page 1 rather than a straight news story. Their article observes that, “the White House is cutting and running from ‘stay the course.’ A phrase meant to connote steely resolve instead has become a symbol for being out of touch and rigid in the face of a war that seems to grow worse by the week, Republican strategists say. Democrats have now turned ‘stay the course’ into an attack line in campaign commercials, and the Bush team is busy explaining that ‘stay the course’ does not actually mean stay the course.”
The Post does not hide from what is really going on here. There is an election in two weeks. And one doesn’t even need to look at polls to know that a majority of Americans, regardless of their opinion of Bush the man, don’t think staying the course is a sensible option when the course doesn’t seem to be going all that well.